Would Justin Welby be embarrassed to own shares in my bank?

The financial sector as a whole isn't the most salubrious industry to be in.

Last month, I took out a loan that had an effective APR of 243,333 per cent. But I didn't go to a payday lender to do it. Although the worst of them do offer loans with interest rates in the hundred thousands, a more typical cost of a payday loan is something like Wonga, which cites a representative APR of 5,853 per cent on its website.

No, instead, I took out an authorised overdraft at my bank. I didn't mean to, you understand; a Kickstarter project I'd backed finished, and charged me about £15. The email was caught by a spam filter, and I'd forgotten it was coming, so my mental accounting was thrown out of whack. By the time I found out, I'd been overdrawn by 17p for two days. For that privilege, my bank charged me the princely sum of £2.

Just for comparison, Wonga themselves, the arch-villain of the day, would have charged me a third of a penny, if they did loans that small, though their handling fee would have been much larger.

In my defence, I'm not an entirely ignorant consumer. The bank account I have does have punitively high interest rates if you go slightly overdrawn, but at the same time, it pays me money for being in credit (something you won't find all that frequently these days). When I'm not an idiot, the two balance out to leave me slightly better off.

But it does leave me wondering at how we pick which companies are evil. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, today says he is "embarrassed" to discover that the Church has a financial stake in Wonga. On a scale of one to ten, his embarrassment ranks "about eight", apparently. But where would an investment in my bank rank? Or is a bank a respectable institution, above criticism, even when the numbers involved tell a different story?

Part of the answer is that the numbers involved don't, in fact, tell the whole story. Quoting the interest rate for my bank is misleading: a better way of phrasing it is to say "I am charged £1 for every day I have an authorised overdraft between £0 and £500". The only reason why my effective APR was so high is because the amount I "borrowed" was so low. But for payday lenders, there's also other ways to phrase it which are less misleading. Wonga, for instance, charges interest of one per cent for every day the loan is taken out, plus a flat handling fee.

But there's also a question of business practices. It's fair to say that advising students to take out a payday loan instead of a student loan, for instance, is not particularly ethical. But then, neither is systematically selling insurance to people who don't need it and will never be able to claim on it, or lying about how much lending costs you in order to boost your profits. It's the financial sector as a whole which could do with a healthy dose of ethics, it seems.

A sign outside a 'Speedy Cash' cash loans shop on Brixton High Street. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war